PICK CITY - The Great Planers Trout and Salmon Club has been hosting a Salmon Derby on Lake Sakakawea for 26 consecutive years. This year's derby ranks as one of their best, maybe the best ever. It was held Aug. 18.
"This year a record was set with 10 fish weighing 76 pounds for the winning team. The old record was 73 pounds about six or seven years ago," said Bryce Anderson, Bismarck, known as "Captain Carp" on the water and president of the Great Planers. "All in all the derby was outstanding with a lot of big fish caught, a lot of nice healthy fish caught. They were big and strong and healthy."
The date of the annual salmon derby doesn't always coincide with the best fishing day. Salmon are know to migrate to the lower depths of Lake Sakakawea in late summer to early fall, but they stay deep until the lake begins to cool and the unavoidable spawning begins to reach a conclusion. Therefore, a successful salmon derby doesn't always provide a completely accurate picture of what is happening with Lake Sakakawea salmon. Nevertheless, the derby provides some critical data for North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists who get their first glimpse of the fall salmon run.
When a salmon is on the line the fun really begins! Note the cannon ball weight hanging from the downrigger of Curt Demke, Bismarck. The weight is used pull lures down to the deep depths often preferred by salmon.
"I don't know that I've ever seen it like this, but I haven't been to all of them," said Russ Kinzler, NDG&F. "I thought it was a pretty good day, actually. They caught quite a few fish and the fish looked good."
Of the 42 teams participating in the derby, 38 boated salmon. The total number of salmon boated was 118, one of the highest catch rates in derby history. The total weight was 792 pounds, putting the average salmon at 6.7 pounds. The largest salmon weighed 14.4 pounds, caught by Roger Schlinger of Mandan. In all, six fishermen pulled in salmon weighing 10 pounds or better.
"Kinzler took the heads from 15 tagged fish," said Blair Ihmels, derby chairman.
Tagged salmon are indicated by a clipped adipose fin, a small fin located on the top of the salmon between the tail and dorsal fin. A clipped adipose fin means an electronic micro-tag had been inserted into the salmon before its release from the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery. Data from those tags, and others yet to be collected, will be analyzed during the coming winter. Roughly one in six salmon are micro-tagged salmon, so the number of tagged salmon caught at the derby seems to fit within that norm.
Since the high water and high releases through Garrison Dam in 2011, there has been much speculation about how many Lake Sakakawea fish were carried downstream. It is known that North Dakota tagged salmon have been caught in South Dakota. However, says Anderson, the loss of salmon may not have been as severe as many people believed.
"There was a comment that we were catching Montana fish and that all of ours were in South Dakota," said Anderson. "Well, we now know that 15 tagged fish came from North Dakota. This is a really positive thing. Every fish that came in was strong and mature. I think the whole thing is on the rebound."
"Absolutely! I've never seen them like this before and I've been doing it since 1986," said Curt Demke, Bismarck. "This is the best year I can remember in a long, long time. Maybe not for numbers but certainly size-wise."
Although he was not entered in the derby, Demke was on the water during the day of the event. His first salmon was a 10-pounder he pulled out of 96-foot water.
"It's just a rush," said Demke. "Just the feel of them, the fight. They are not a walleye. It is a nice change."
Demke said he likes to run squids behind a flasher. It is his favorite presentation. Color, says Demke, doesn't seem to matter. Demke caught salmon the day after the derby too, including a 12-pounder and a "couple of 8s."
Both the size and the number of fish caught grabbed the attention of those in the derby. It was a remarkable day, especially when considered the 2011 derby was about as rough as possible.
"Last year we caught three fish total," said Anderson. "It was an ironic year with the flood, high water and spillway open. We toyed with the idea of not holding the derby and then decided to do it. I've been involved for some 20 years with North Dakota salmon fishing. I can tell you this year's tournament was outstanding, a very good tournament."
North Dakota's state record chinook salmon is 31 pounds, 2 ounces. That fish was caught by Thomas Schwartz of Beulah from the Garrison Dam Tailrace in 1986. While no one is expected that record to fall on Lake Sakakawea this year, there is no question that the salmon are running larger than they have for several seasons.
"A 20-pounder? I don't think we'll see that, but I think we'll break 16 for sure," said Ihmels. "Based on the size of the fish, the fishery is in really good shape and the big females are yet to come."
"It's like a roller coaster with water levels going up and down. The Game and Fish does a heck of a job. I really believe, right now, the roller coaster is on the ride up," said Anderson.
Two years ago, Game and Fish's Dave Fryda, the biologist who oversees Lake Sakakawea, said he expected 2012 to be "really good" for salmon. Despite all the variables faced on such a large body of water, that prediction appears to have been confirmed by the results of the recent salmon derby.
Salmon success and growth in Lake Sakakawea has always been linked to rainbow smelt, a cold water dwelling forage fish that salmon hunt continuously. When smelt numbers are high, salmon do well. Lately though, salmon have been proving to be very opportunistic predators. Many of them have been feasting on young white bass.
"They prefer smelt, but there appears to be a lot of white bass out there," said Kinzler. "We've seen that this year and saw it a couple of years ago."
"I think, based on the size of the fish, that white bass is one of their food sources," added Ihmels. "I think it is one of the reasons the size has gotten bigger."
Smelt or white bass, it doesn't matter to the salmon fisherman once the line starts peeling off his reel and the sound of the clicker resembles a rapid buzz. Salmon are great fun to catch, very challenging to bring to the net in and can provide some wonderful eating.
Youth, teen salmon fishing
A big part of the Great Planers Salmon Derby is devoted to participation by young fishermen. Both a Youth Division and a Teen Division are held in conjunction with the tourney.
"It is really about the kids. The kids part is the key to our whole derby," explained Ihmels. "The Youth Division is for kids 12 and under and the Teen Division for 11-13 year olds. They did catch fish."
Jacob Mildenberger captured the Teen Division crown with a 10.1 pound salmon. The Youth Division winner was Dillen Nosbusch of Bismarck with a salmon weighing in just under 9 pounds.
The tournament was headquartered at Lake Sakakawea State Park. The Great Planers Trout and Salmon Club has another outing scheduled for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
"It'll be on Sunday, a mini-tournament," said Anderson. "It will give us more of an idea of how the salmon are doing."